That´s the tabloid-style scare headline for this topic. The sensible, broadsheet-style headline would be “Fleet buyers to dominate in car market”.
According to Automotive News (who posted this story on Saturday, Jan 10th – do they never rest?) Renault are to bank on fleet sales as the proportion of private customers decreases relative to corporate ones: “Renault hopes its new Espace will appeal to business customers as family buyers increasingly shun minivans”. Furthermore, AN reports that “Jamel Taganza, an analyst for Inovev, said fleet customers now represent the majority of potential buyers of midsize vehicles in Europe: ‘With the exception of Italy, the shift to fleet sales is a European-wide trend,’ he said”.
For quite some time I´ve been railing against the dull and limited range of colours for car interiors. Only last night I was admiring the mid-blue velour interior of a 1995 Lancia Kappa but the kids would destroy it. Such colours are a thing of the past; the Jaguar X-type had blue velour though, another reason to love it. Why are nice colours extinct? Among the reasons I thought of to explain this was that we live in a conservative period. And that´s true – cool colours are dominant in homes and furnishings as well as in automotive interiors, reflecting the anxiety of our times and the politically rightward shift that has been underway since 1979. But, more prosaically, the manufacturers are not going to prepare interesting and personal colour choices if the take-up is mostly dominated by corporate buyers looking for something inoffensive to sell three years down the line.
The other question raised by this article is whether the change in the ratio of private to fleet buyers is due to a decrease in absolute numbers of private buyers or an increase in absolute numbers of fleet buyers or is the change relative. If it is due to fewer private buyers in absolute terms then does this mean ordinary people are not interested in getting a new car? We have, of course, reached peak car in Europe so I would hazard that the number of private buyers is not changing so much as the number of corporate buyers. That means they are the ones responsible for the variation in demand.
If fleet sales are so important, one might wonder whether automotive journalists are wasting their breath in some market sectors. Most car reviews are written on the assumption that a private person will make a personal choice when buying their car. Characteristics such as performance and handling tend to be the main emotional factors that attract a buyer, along with the styling. For a fleet buyer the factors are more likely to be derivative characteristics such as resale value which is driven by how attractive the car is to tight-fisted second-hand buyers; they are also interested in insurance and maintenance costs. And then they are interested in fuel economy too. Apart from the last one, most of these factors are about second-guessing what someone else will think. This is a long way from the decision-making of the individual who can weigh up quantitative factors against qualitative ones e.g. “I don´t care if I lose €400 on the resale, I want a yellow car with an orange interior” and “I don´t care if I lose €500 on the resale if it means I get a more responsive engine”. And so on.
The final impact of all this, in the abstract, is that the large majority of cars are sold to customers who are considering the next owner and not themselves only. That would be the fleet buyers and also the kind of ghastly person who opts for a grey over grey car because that´ll be easier to sell. At a trivial level this explains nicely the death of ivy green, burnt orange, brown and red interiors; it explains the reduction of exterior colour palettes to a set of greys, dark reds and blues; and I suppose it explains the extent to which customers let minor differences in resale value result in massive differences in sales figures for cars such as the Citroen C6 and Lancia Thesis.
Without wanting to get lost in sociology and politics, the conservatism of our times and the decline of the private buyer´s importance in the market may not be unrelated. Would it be possible that our collective insecurity which is a function of globalisation and its shredding-effect on the social safety net mean people don´t feel like buying a car, let alone one with zany colours? So, in a very particular way, the extinction of the bright car colour is a kind of canary in the mine, telling us that we are now more and more insecure and the rapidity and unpredictability of the market-liberal world is making us feel less and less optimistic about things? Paradoxically, while people are voting in their self-interest and voting for lower taxes and a smaller state, the effect is that we are collectively feeling worse. And that´s why we don´t want to shell out for a car, let alone one trimmed in cheerful caramel cloth with a bright green exterior.